“My father wasn’t a hard guy. He was a well-liked guy. He had a lot of compassion about things in life. There were rules, but there was also flexibility within those rules. He didn’t push me when it came to golf: he just taught me the right way to play the game.” - Kansan Tom Watson
I feel super old writing this, but I hate driving in the dark. It never used to bother me. I’m not really sure when it changed. I don’t like the bright lights of on-coming cars. My eyes have trouble adjusting to the dark and I never feel comfortable knowing I can’t see everything around me. I just don’t like driving in the dark.
That was all I was thinking about that morning on the drive to Claflin, Kansas, after waking up at 5:00 am. It wasn’t too bad until I got out of the city. I grew up in the country and I always forget how dark it is until I’m in it. My uneasiness of driving in the dark gave me a jolt of focus you don't get from gas station coffee.
I don’t get up that early for just anything. Today was a big day. For one, I was getting to play golf. I probably wouldn’t get up that early to play just any golf course. Probably. This one was special though: it was another county in my quest to play at least nine holes of golf in every county in Kansas. I started this journey a few years back and have been pretty dedicated to working on it. I wrote a story about my adventure that was even published in The Golfer’s Journal No. 7 earlier this year. Needless to say, this one was special and I was actually excited, despite the early wake up call and driving the darkness.
Apart from the personal accomplishment this course meant to me, I was excited because of who was going to be there. Golf is a social game. Sure there are times to be quiet, but the rest of the time should be enjoyable as players interact with each other, the course, and whatever nature is throwing at them that day.
I always enjoy teeing it up with my best friend/business partner and he was driving through the darkness from the other direction to meet me at the course. Regardless of the scores, it is always a good time to catch up and I always look forward to it when we set these little matches. They’re always competitive but now they have extra juice because of this thing we’re trying to build out here in the middle. I was ready to get there, get some work done, and then get to whooping my best friend's ass all over this new course at this game we both love.
But he wasn’t the only person meeting us at the course that had me excited: my dad was driving in the darkness to meet us and play too. I talked to him a couple days before on my way home from work and we were talking golf. I told him we were heading to Claflin bright and early Saturday morning and I was shocked when he said he would consider joining us. I still didn’t have a lot of hope that he actually would. That would mean an alarm before 6:30 am and at least an hour and a half drive one-way, all on his day off. Chances seemed pretty slim to say the least.
His text message came through at 8:39 pm the night before and simply said “my pull cart is loaded.” Still can't believe we live in a world where my old man texts me now.
My dad is my all-time hero. I have a lot of role models and mentors who have helped shape my outlook on life, but none more so than my father. I couldn't list the things he's taught me about life, love, parenting, friendship, loyalty, devotion, dedication. He's the one who gave me a passion for history. And a deep seated love of place - especially this one we both call home. I've wanted to be like him for as long as I can remember.
And it isn’t that he was perfect. In fact, quite the opposite. He has flaws, made mistakes, and broke a few rules. And that’s just talking about his golf game…
He didn’t introduce me to the game, that was my grandpa’s fault, but he is probably the person I’ve played the most golf with. I don’t remember the first time I ever beat him, but he probably does. I do remember the last time I lost to him and the course I vowed never to play again after that match.
We have a mess of things in common and I enjoy every second I get to spend with him, but golf has always been our thing. It was something the two of us could do while the rest of our family was out doing something less interesting or fun. My brother and sister have their own things with our dad, but I’ve always kind of viewed sports in general, and golf in particular, as our special connection.
I became a father three years ago. When my own son was about one, my old man had a weird health scare which required a ride in an ambulance and a stay in the hospital for a few days. I remember walking into the hospital to visit him while holding the little hand of my own son. My son won’t remember it, but I was trying to mask the overwhelming fear I had for my dad. The old man went through a slew of tests in the weeks and months that followed. They never really figured out what actually happened. Or at least, he hasn’t ever told me exactly what it was. But he was changed by that experience. So was I. That was the first time I can remember really fearing that someday, I wouldn't be able to call my dad on the way home from work, help him out on the farm, or play a round of golf with him. My hero was vulnerable in a way I'd never seen before.
Thankfully, we’ve been able to play golf several times since then. I’ve been down to my hometown and played a few times down there. We’ve played in a few charity scramble tournaments. We’ve played in Manhattan the day after football games. We even played twice earlier this summer on vacation at a little nine hole course in Idaho. It was just our type of place. But this particular morning was different; it felt special. Special because he was going out of his way, about three hours round trip, to make it happen.
I beat the sunrise to the course in Claflin and we got a lot work done once the sun came up to join us. The day really started when my old man pulled into the parking lot about an hour after we first arrived. After a hug and a bit of stretching, we were ready to rock on the first tee and the little course in Claflin was the backdrop for a wonderful morning of golf with two people I always appreciate playing with.
The course is shorter than most which had me salivating and dreaming of breaking 70. With a par of 34 for nine holes, the first of it’s kind that I’ve played I believe, I felt it was possible if I had a great day and everything fell into place just right. Certainly seemed like I was on my way to it after nearly driving the green on the par four first hole. It was going to be a good day. And I didn’t really give a damn about where that shot landed.
We all started pretty well and were enjoying our walk, this new course, and the company. My old man sprayed his drive right on the dogleg left par four fifth hole and I decided to go help him look. While we were walking, I told him how happy I was he was there, it was great to see him and play with him. But I also asked him why. Why did he get up so early to play golf here? He could have easily played his home course and rode in his own cart, instead of walking this foreign course with us. His answer said it all: “Well, your mother was gone and I didn’t have anything planned. I wanted to play today and was hoping to play with you. It just sounded like fun.”
It just sounded like fun. Sounds like my dad.
My friend was up on me by one when we made the turn. My old man had his struggles on the front nine, starting with the aforementioned sprayed drive on hole five. He was out of the running and was almost guaranteed to be wearing the ugly tie to church the next morning. That’s our special golf bet and it’s starting to make a permanent home in his possession at this point. Not sure an outside observer would have been able to tell who was winning or how we were playing by our moods though. It was just a great nine holes hanging with two of my best friends.
On the tenth tee, my friend leaned in and said how much fun he was having. He had never played with my dad before. He said today was all about family. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
By the time we got to the back nine, the calm of the morning had ceased and the wind kicked up to a steady twenty mile per hour gale out of the south. It is Kansas after all. With wind like that, this little course played entirely different. Shots required two or three club differences on the back nine. The wide-openness of the course meant you could recover from wherever the wind blew your ball, but also meant that was no escape from it. It was constant and it was howling. Not the best day to try and break 70 for the first time.
None of us played our best that morning. The wind was a key factor in the bloating of the scores. I beat them both and enjoyed getting some barbs in at both of them on what they owed me. We pulled out some gear when we got to the vehicles and my friend showed off some of his new toys. I was watching my old man's face as we launched the drone. He broke into a huge smile and was laughing watching it maneuver over the course and out of sight. My dad bought a Seven Up from the vending machine in the clubhouse, we hugged, and then jumped in our vehicles to make the long drive back home. Thankfully, in the light of a beautiful, early fall, Kansas afternoon.
If this would have been in our hometown, or any other course we’ve played a bunch of times, I’m not sure it would have been as memorable. I’ve played that round of golf with both of them many times (wind blowing, I won, etc.). This one was special though. It was an early morning. It was a new place. It was my best friend. It was my dad. It just sounded like fun. Still does.
I have to remind myself that golf is still just a game sometimes. I take it too seriously, think I’m better than I actually am, and certainly get mad when I make a dumb mistake. It’s mornings like that one in Claflin that put a lot of things in perspective though. I’m so thankful both of them thought it sounded fun enough to be out there with me that morning. Certainly made the long drive in the dark well worth it.
Glad you were there Dad. And glad you're here too.